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Soccer! Gregg Berhalter is taking firm control of the U.S. men's team

Soccer! Gregg Berhalter is taking firm control of the U.S. men's team
Gregg Berhalter, head coach of the United States men's national soccer team, talks to players during a practice in Chula Vista, Calif., on Jan. 7. (K.C. Alfred / Union-Tribune)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer.

Today we start in Chula Vista, about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexican border, where Gregg Berhalter on Monday opened his first training camp as coach of the U.S. men’s national team.

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And Berhalter, at 45 the youngest coach to lead the national team since Steve Sampson in 1995, isn’t the only one new to the team. Thirteen of the 28 players called up have never played for the U.S., while nine others have six or fewer caps.

Captain Michael Bradley’s 142 international appearances are five more than the rest of the roster combined.

The message is clear: A year after missing the World Cup for the first time in more than a generation, U.S. Soccer is starting over. Berhalter is well-equipped to lead that transition, not least of all because he embraces analytics, a force he and Earnie Stewart, the U.S. team’s general manager, believe is about to revolutionize soccer.

“To see what the top level is doing is pretty impressive,” said Berhalter, who recently spoke at a coaching convention in Barcelona, Spain, where the revolution has already taken place.

“We’re getting there,” he said. “When we get tracking data, it’s really going to help us get a better picture.”

As Berhalter hurried his team through its first workout, a brisk 90-minute session, a drone recorded everything that happened on the field below. But that’s only part of the picture Berhalter someday hopes to have.

Some clubs, he says, collect troves of information.

“What we’re going to try to do is form better relationships with the clubs so we can get more data from the clubs and bring it into our program,” he said.

Soccer is perhaps the least-quantified team sport. It is low-scoring and features few individual statistics beyond goals, assists and saves. But in the last half-dozen years, the number of teams using analytical experts has grown. The German federation even has a head of match analysis, who insists that players carry around devices that provide performance feedback while coaches consult tablets on the sidelines during games.

The most useful information collected is stuff that isn’t easily discernible, such as where players move without the ball, how they create space and how often they wind up in dangerous positions, even if they never take a shot.

“You can track things like that through data,” Berhalter said. “It’s crazy what they’ve been doing.”

Crazy because Berhalter says that when he began his national team playing career in 1994 “we couldn’t even get video.”

“Think about that,” he continued. “You couldn’t even watch your own game. We’ve come so far.”

Let’s hope we’re not all sorry we made that trip.

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The relentless numbers-crunching of data-driven front offices has ruined baseball, replacing the sport’s poetry and grace with an unbending devotion to launch angles, exit velocity and bat speed. RBIs, ERAs and HRs have been replaced by DER, wRC+ and xFIP.

“American professional sports, they’re way ahead of us in terms of using analytics in real time,” Berhalter said. “Soccer is not there yet. But it’s pushing.”

Just adding up the numbers doesn’t always provide the right answer, though. Yet baseball front offices are often far too content to accept the analysis of a computer program rather than walking into a clubhouse and taking the human element into consideration.

I covered the 2003 Florida Marlins team that won a World Series with a roster than probably shouldn’t have made the playoffs. It was a team with more flaws than Roseanne Barr’s comeback plan but the character and camaraderie of its players made it far stronger than the sum of its individual parts. And that allowed it to beat a New York Yankees team with four likely Hall of Famers.

Berhalter appears to understand that. For his first camp, players are staying in spartan dorms, two to a room, at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center — not as a punishment but as a push.

“We very clearly laid out the objectives of this training camp, which is team building, team culture, style of play and competing,” he said. “But we also talked bigger picture, about what we want to be and who we want to be as a group and what our mission is.

“That’s important because you want to have the big picture in mind.”

It may take time for the rest of Berhalter’s approach to take root. While Bradley, who has played for four other national team coaches, including his dad, was complimentary of the new manager after his first day, he wasn’t committing to the analytical revolution just yet.

“That’s hard for me to answer just because I don’t know how his analytics are used. Two hours on the field this morning didn’t touch on any of that,” he said. “We’ll see. It’s Day 1. Give us a little time.”

Scheduling issues

The MLS regular-season schedules were released Monday and they contained pain and pleasure for the Galaxy and its neighborhood rival, the Los Angeles Football Club.

Although MLS teams will still play 34 regular-season games, they’ll do that in three weeks’ less time, part of the league’s effort to squeeze the postseason into a three-week window between the final two FIFA international breaks of the season.

The front end of the schedule looks good for the Galaxy, who play six of their first nine games at home. But because the team shares Dignity Health Sports Park with the NFL’s Chargers, the Galaxy will make three-game trips in August and September after the football season begins.

The team is also scheduled to play five games on artificial turf, including one against reigning MLS champion Atlanta United. That could be a problem for the Galaxy because their top player, forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic, has largely avoided gambling his surgically repaired knee on turf fields in his brief MLS career.

LAFC, who played their first six games on the road in 2018 while construction on their stadium was completed, will be at home for three of their first five matches in 2019, beginning with their March 3 opener against Sporting Kansas City.

But the team faces two particularly tough stretches, one in May when in 13 days they will play four times in three states and three time zones, and another in September, when in 22 days they play five times in four states.

LAFC and the Galaxy will face off twice in 2018, on July 19 in Carson and again on Aug. 25 in Exposition Park.

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LAFC schedule (all times Pacific)

March 3 vs. Sporting KC, 5 p.m., ESPN

March 10 vs. Portland Timbers, 4:30 p.m., FS1

March 17 at New York City FC, noon, FS1

March 23 vs. Real Salt Lake, TBD, MLS

March 30 at San Jose Earthquakes, 12:30 p.m., Univision

April 6 at D.C. United, 11:30 a.m., Fox

April 13 vs. FC Cincinnati, TBD, MLS

April 17 at Vancouver Whitecaps FC, 7 p.m., TSN

April 21 vs. Seattle Sounders FC, 4 p.m., FS1

April 28 at Seattle,12:30 p.m., ESPN

May 4 vs. Chicago Fire, TBD, MLS

May 11 at Columbus Crew SC, TBD, MLS

May 16 vs. FC Dallas, 7 p.m., ESPN2

May 19 at Dallas, TBD, MLS

May 24 vs. Montreal Impact, 7:30 p.m., TVA, TSN

June 1 at Portland, 7:30 p.m., ESPN2

June 28 at Colorado Rapids, 7 p.m., UniMas

July 3 at Kansas City, TBD, MLS

July 6 vs. Vancouver, TBD, TSN

July 12 at Houston Dynamo, 6 p.m., UniMas

July 19 at Galaxy, 7 p.m., ESPN

Jul 27 vs. Atlanta United, 5 p.m., ESPN

Aug. 3 at New England Revolution, TBD, MLS

Aug. 11 vs. New York Red Bulls, 7 p.m., FS1

Aug. 17 at Salt Lake, TBD, MLS

Aug. 21 vs. San Jose, TBD, UniMas

Aug. 25 at Galaxy, 7 p.m., FS1

Aug 31 vs. Minnesota United FC, TBD, MLS

Sept. 7 at Orlando City SC, TBD, MLS

Sept. 14 at Philadelphia Union, TBD, MLS

Sept. 21 vs. Toronto FC, TBD, TSN

Sept. 25 vs. Houston, TBD, MLS

Sept. 29 at Minnesota, 4:30 p.m., MLS

Oct. 6 vs. Colorado, 1 p.m., MLS

Galaxy schedule (all times Pacific)

March 2 vs. Chicago, 5 p.m., FS1

March 9 at Dallas, 12:30 p.m., Univision

March 16 vs. Minnesota, 7:30 p.m., MLS

March 31 vs. Portland, 6 p.m., ESPN2

April 5 at Vancouver, 7 p.m., TSN

April 13 vs. Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m., MLS

April 19 vs. Houston, 7:30 p.m., UniMas

April 24 at Minnesota, 5 p.m., MLS

April 28 vs. Salt Lake, 5 p.m., MLS

May 4 at N.Y. Red Bulls, 11 a.m., ESPN

May 8 at Columbus, 4:30 p.m., MLS

May 11 vs. New York City FC, 1 p.m., ESPN

May 19 vs. Colorado, 5 p.m., MLS

May 24 at Orlando, 4 p.m., UniMas

May 29 at Kansas City, 5:30 p.m., MLS

June 1 vs. New England, 7:30 p.m., MLS

June 22 at Cincinnati, 4:30 p.m., MLS

June 29 at San Jose***, 7 p.m, MLS

July 4 vs. Toronto, 7:30 p.m., TSN

July 12 vs. San Jose, 8 p.m., UniMas

July 19 vs. LAFC, 7 p.m., ESPN

July 27 at Portland, 7:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 3 at Atlanta, 1:30 p.m., Fox

Aug. 11 at D.C. United, 4:30 p.m., FS1

Aug. 14 vs. Dallas, 7:30 p.m., MLS

Aug. 17, Seattle, 7 p.m., ESPN2

Aug. 25 at LAFC, 7 p.m., FS1

Sept. 1 at Seattle, 3 p.m., FS1

Sept. 12 at Colorado, 6 p.m., MLS

Sept. 15 vs. Kansas City, 7 p.m., MLS

Sept. 21 vs. Montreal, 7:30 p.m., TVA

Sept. 25 at Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m., MLS

Sept. 29 vs. Vancouver, 4:30 p.m., TSN

Oct. 6 at Houston, 1 p.m., MLS

*** at Stanford Stadium

Alumni news

Steven Gerrard didn’t make much of an impact during an injury-riddled 1 1/2-year visit to MLS with the Galaxy. But he is making noise in his managerial debut with Rangers, in the top tier of Scottish soccer.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” Gerrard told reporters about taking the job. “I knew the size of the club. This opportunity does not come around very often, clubs of this stature. I have confidence in myself.”

Rangers went into the Scottish Premiership’s three-week-long winter break with a 12-3-6 record and tied with Celtic for the league lead with 42 points. Rangers also have the league’s top scorer in Colombian Alfredo Morales, who has 12 goals, and the assist leader in England’s James Tavernier, who has 10 to go with six goals.

A league title would be sweet revenge for Gerrard because the Celtic team Rangers are tied with is managed by Brendan Rodgers, Gerrard’s last manager at Liverpool. It was Rodgers who told an aging Gerrard he was no longer guaranteed a spot in the starting lineup, clearing the way for his departure to MLS.

Rodgers was sacked early the next season but by then Gerrard was already playing for the Galaxy.

Also on the move after leaving Southern California is Belgian center back Laurent Ciman, the first captain of the Los Angeles Football Club.

Ciman abruptly left LAFC for Dijon of France’s Ligue 1 last August, but after playing just nine games in four months in France, he is returning to MLS and Toronto on a free transfer.

Ciman, 33, who was traded from Montreal to LAFC against his wishes in December 2017, never seemed to warm to Southern California despite the support he received from LAFC fans.

Ciman’s daughter Nina his autistic and was thriving under a French-language program in Montreal. When Ciman was playing in Belgium, his wife Diana began researching treatment options for Nina and found some of the best were in Canada.

So Ciman asked his agent to reach out to Montreal, where he played three seasons.

The Cimans, according to friends, have a house in Montreal and would like to have the option of staying in Canada when Laurent’s playing days are over. By returning to the country now, the family improves their chances of obtaining residency there.

U.S. women begin push to World Cup

The U.S. women’s national team opened its winter training camp Monday in Portugal, officially kicking off preparations for this summer’s World Cup in France.

The U.S. — unbeaten at 18-0-2 in 2018 — will train in Portugal for a week before playing exhibitions against France in Le Havre and Spain in Alicante. But the best players the U.S. is likely to face on the trip will be on its own roster.

When Tom Sermanni coached the No. 1-ranked women’s national team five years ago, he frequently broke the roster into two squads and had the women scrimmage against one another, believing the U.S. back-ups were probably the second-best team in the world. Current coach Jill Ellis is following that script.

“We are fortunate to have solid depth because having the ability to train against ourselves is a vital part of our preparation,” she said. “Inviting seven central midfielders and seven forwards for three starting positions each speaks to the depth and competitiveness of the front six.

“We recognize that we have formally entered a World Cup year and I know the players’ focus and enthusiasm will reflect the importance of the world we have to do in January.”

Topping the roster up front is Alex Morgan, the reigning U.S. women’s player of the year, who scored 18 times in 19 games last season, leaving her just two goals shy of 100 for her international career. Also on the team are Carli Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year, and World Cup veterans Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Morgan Brian, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Ertz.

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Looking ahead to the summer, last month’s World Cup draw could not have worked out better for the defending champion Americans. Not only was the U.S. put in the weakest of the six four-team groups — the only one with just two top-20 teams — but it got a break on the travel side too.

Its longest trip in the group stage will be just 122 miles, from Paris to Le Harve. And if the U.S. wins its group and advances to the quarterfinals, its first two knockout-round games — in Reims and Paris — would be just 88 miles apart.

Three years ago, the U.S. was drawn in the so-called Group of Death with Sweden, Australia and a physical team from Nigeria and traveled nearly 6,000 miles across Canada in less than a month. Yet it emerged from the tournament unbeaten, winning a record third world championship.

The top-ranked U.S. will kick off next summer’s World Cup against No. 29 Thailand on June 11 in Reims. It will then play No. 38 Chile — a team it shut out twice last summer — five days later in Paris before closing the first round against No. 9 Sweden in Le Harve on June 20.

That game will mark the sixth time Sweden and the U.S. have met in group play at a World Cup.

“Whatever teams are rolled out in front of us, you’ve got to play. And you’ve got to prepare,” Ellis said. “Obviously the most important game is the first one. Everybody says that but it is because you want to have that good feeling going into that second game. So I think we will come full throttle in the opening match.”

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as cohost Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Happy New Year!

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